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Muller Misinformation #3: Al Gore and polar bears

Posted on 17 April 2011 by Brad Johnson

Many thanks to Brad Johnson for allowing SkS to repost an amended version of a ThinkProgress post.

In previous posts, we've looked at how Dr. Richard Muller confuses "Mike's trick" with "hide the decline" and how he falsely claims the "decline" data was leaked rather than publicly released. Muller also provides misinformation regarding Vice President Al Gore, whom he calls an “extremist” and “alarmist.” In a recent lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, Muller claimed that Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, was lambasted by esteemed climate scientist Dr. Ralph Cicerone, the head of the National Academy of Sciences:

Al Gore, when he talks about the polar bears being killed by the receding glaciers, no basis for that. In fact, let me jump ahead and tell a little story. Ralph Cicerone, head of the National Academy, said there are lots of things wrong in his movie, and Al Gore asked him to come and explain this to him, and he did come. And he said, “Well, what’s wrong with my movie?”

“Well, lots of things, like the polar bears. We track polar bears. Not a single polar bear has died because of retreating ice.”

And Al Gore turned to his movie producer and said, “So, why did we put that in?” The movie producer said, “Well, it really gets people emotionally involved.”

See, this is what politicians do. They put in things that they consider a real danger that represents what they consider to be reality. Doesn’t matter if it’s technically true or not. So, there’s so much misinformation on this field. Global warming is real. I am deeply concerned about it. I am leading a major study on global warming. But most of what made the newspaper headlines is either wrong, or backward, or simply exaggerated.

Muller’s story is not “technically true.” In fact, it’s false. The meeting between Gore and Cicerone that Muller describes is apocryphal. A fiction.

After I queried Cicerone’s office, Bill Skane, the Executive Director of News & Public Information for the National Academy of Sciences explained in an email that the supposed conversation never took place:

There was no meeting or conversation between Dr. Cicerone and Vice President Gore or his film producer regarding An Inconvenient Truth and thus no comment about polar bears. We’ve contacted Dr. Muller today about his speech and are hoping to hear back from him.

“Thanks for taking the time to check this material before using it in something you might write,” Skane concluded. “Dr. Muller’s remarks regarding Dr. Cicerone were in error.”

Gore’s spokesperson Kalee Kreider confirmed to me that the Cicerone-Gore confrontation was a fantasy.

Not only did the conversation not take place, Muller’s depiction of An Inconvenient Truth was false as well. Here’s the transcript of what Gore actually said about polar bears in his documentary, which was released in 2006:

Right now, the Arctic ice cap acts like a giant mirror, all the sun’s rays bounce off, more than 90%. It keeps the Earth cooler, but as it melts, and the open ocean receives that sun’s energy instead, more than 90% is absorbed, so there is a faster buildup of heat here, at the North Pole, in the Arctic Ocean, and the Arctic generally than anywhere else on the planet. That’s not good for creatures like polar bears, who depend on the ice. They’re now, actually, looking for other ecological niches. It is sad what’s going on in the Arctic ecosystem.

Unsurprisingly, Cicerone said essentially the same thing a year before Gore’s documentary came out, in testimony before the U.S. Senate:

The Arctic has warmed at a faster rate than the Northern Hemisphere over the past century. A Vision for the International Polar Year 2007-2008 (2004) reports that this warming is associated with a number of impacts including: melting of sea ice, which has important impacts on biological systems such as polar bears, ice-dependent seals and local people for whom these animals are a source of food; increased rain and snow, leading to changes in river discharge and tundra vegetation; and degradation of the permafrost.

Both Gore and Cicerone’s statements succinctly summarized the known science on the radical changes of the Arctic ecosystem and the threat to polar bears. In the Hudson Bay, for example, where sea ice breaks up three weeks earlier than it did in 1980, the average weight of female polar bears had dropped by about 21 percent, and the population declined by 22 percent, by 2004.

Since An Inconvenient Truth, the situation has grown increasingly dire for the Arctic. The rate of Arctic sea ice decline has increased precipitously, from a decline of 8.6 percent per decade to 11.5 percent per decade. In 2005, five of 19 polar bear subpopulations were known to be in decline (5 stable, 2 increasing, 7 unknown); by 2009, eight of the 19 subpopulations were known to be in decline (3 stable, one increasing, 7 unknown).

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Comments 1 to 18:

  1. What's funny about this, too, is that his argument about polar bears is clearly a bait-and-switch.
    Not a single polar bear has died because of retreating ice.

    First, how could anyone possibly know this, that not a single polar bear has died because...? How could one ever attribute a single polar bear death to retreating ice? Do they have satellites in space that watch every polar bear, to see if any slip, or get trapped on ice floes? Do they have a PDMEM (Polar Bear Death Evaluation Module) which runs on a Cray supercomputer and determines the statistical probability that a satellite-detected polar bear death was, or was not, attributable to retreating ice?

    But more importantly (Al Gore's actual vague "That’s not good..." comment aside), no one has ever said that climate change would result in an instantaneous and immediate change in Arctic ice, which in turn would quickly devastate the polar bear population.

    This is a recurring theme in denial, one that bugs me, and one that people should be ready to recognize and dismiss. This is the idea that "if it hasn't happened yet, climate change is not happening, or not bad."

    Almost all negative effects of climate change are 20 to 50 years in the future, or even beyond that. Any argument which says "hasn't happened" is purposely ignoring the relevant time frames.

    Sea level discussions often take the same track, as well as effects on crop production. Sea level rises are going to accelerate dramatically. The fact that it doesn't look so bad today is ignoring the problem. Crop production is going to drop for most of the world. The fact that crop yields may temporarily improve in some regions is ignoring the problem.

    The problem with climate change is that it is a long term thing, with horrible, negative effects in a relatively distant future, but effects which will be impossible to avoid without action in the near future.

    Everyone should be on constant guard for this. "It hasn't happened" is a strawman argument against a misrepresentation of the problem, meant to distract and confuse.
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  2. Muller continues to illustrate he in not a climate change scientist. No wonder I had never heard of him until this year in my 25 years working in the field. He clearly does not reach the level of Al Gore in fact checking. Further what about consideration of other supporting lines of evidence. Say the Pacific Walrus in Alaska where indications from 2007 and 2010 are not good. This is what a scientist approaching the subject in a scientific manner would consider.
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  3. Thank you for this post. I've enjoyed reading this site for well over a year, and have never commented. But the audacity of Muller's quotes really struck me. If any of my colleagues (at an environmental consulting firm) included obviously fabricated statements and outrageous distortions as part of a lecture or invited speech, we would likely be severely reprimanded or even fired. How does Muller get away with it? Is he emeritus?
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  4. Dr Muller must have missed this newspaper article about a polar bear who swam hundreds of miles looking for ice, and food. The cub disappeared, presumably drowned.
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  5. thanks for this very interesting post. it shows how denials operate. I am really surprised at how these people (also Monckton) get audience ...
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  6. Where does this story get its roots from? It seems so detailed that you'd Muller would have gotten it from somewhere.
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  7. To see video evidence of drowned polar bear cubs associated with Global Warming related retreating sea ice, see this PBS footage. It's just two and a half minutes long.
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  8. Enginerd raises a really important point. At what point is the defamation and fraud of the false claims (Muller's, Christy's, and the twisted words from Climategate, just to name a few) legally actionable? If it was actionable, who would be the complainant? And how can universities who employ those who misrepresent facts so blatantly continue to employ them? (Moderators, I understand that this might be a tangent that belongs on another thread.)
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  9. The obvious question for Muller is "How could a melting, thinning, reducing Arctic Ice Cap NOT have a deleterious effect on Polar Bear populations?"
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  10. Taking legal action to silence the misinformation supplied by climate denialists would be seen as a conspiratorial attempt to silence the whistle-blower.
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  11. According to the World Wildlife Fund (2009):

    Several polar bear populations were decimated by unsustainable hunting by European, Russian and American hunters and trappers from the 1600s right through to the mid-1970's.

    In 1973 commercial hunting was strictly regulated following the signing of an international agreement on polar bear conservation.


    Today, polar bears are among the few large carnivores that are still found in roughly their original habitat and range, and in some places in roughly their natural numbers.

    Although most populations have returned to healthy numbers, there are differences between the populations. Some are stable, some seem to be increasing, and some are decreasing due to various pressures. There are large uncertainties regarding some populations that are still harvested quite heavily and others for which information is lacking.

    As you can see from their map, which you can access on the World Wildlife Fund site (alas, my best efforts to post the image have been to no avail):

    1 population is increasing, 3 populations are stable, 8 declining, and 7 data deficient.

    I don’t question the consensus that habitat loss would be a major threat to bear numbers at least in areas in which hunting is strictly controlled because polar bears strong preference for hunting seals on sea ice. A recent Nature study, for example, predicts decreasing litter size with earlier sea ice melt in west Hudson Bay suggesting this could affect about 30% of the polar bear population. However, the authors sensibly caution that much depends on assumptions about sea ice behaviour, discussion of which clearly belongs on another thread (but yes, I do know Hudson Bay did not freeze over completely last winter). Moreover, their study is based on predictive modelling flowing from the observation that approximately 28% of pregnant females failed to reproduce for energetic reasons during the early 1990s.

    They note:

    Historically, polar bears came ashore in early August, but because of rising temperatures sea ice break-up has been occurring about 7–8 days earlier per decade in recent years. Polar bear on-shore arrival has shifted accordingly, resulting in shortened on-ice feeding and prolonged on-shore fasting.

    The authors also note limitations in their study:

    However, on-ice feeding rates are unknown for Hudson Bay, and it is also unclear how these rates vary seasonally.

    They then acknowledge assumptions in their modelling which might both overestimate and underestimate litter sizes.

    Returning to our map, I note that the west Hudson Bay population is declining but the adjacent Southern Hudson Bay population appears stable. The disparity between adjacent regions suggests the whole business might be complex than at first sight. Historically, the climate even in the West Hudson Bay area has shown considerable variability. Hence, Dyck et al (2007) write in Ecological Complexity:

    Finally, we wish to encourage a renewed archaeological search for information related to polar bear population ecology from 1760 to 1820, when historical evidence (based on early thermometers at trading posts of Churchill Factory and York Factory) suggests that the climatic regimes at WH had shifted from temperate to arctic conditions …. Ball (1983, 1986) documented large changes and abrupt shifts in both floral (i.e., treeline boundary between the boreal forest and the tundra) and fauna (i.e., migration of wild geese) ecosystem responses of the Hudson Bay region that occurred naturally as a consequence of the varying mean locations of the Arctic Front ….

    I appreciate that some of the authors of the latter study, which is also a little old, might not be universally popular on this site but so be it.
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  12. Chris @11,

    Here you go.

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  13. chriscanaris, you might want to reconsider holding up the 'stability' of the Southern Hudson Bay population as evidence that, "the whole business might be complex than at first sight". [sic]

    Based on deteriorating bear weight and other observations, that sub-population is currently listed as 'very likely' (i.e. 80-100%) to decline in the future. That from the same studies, by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, as the population trends you (and the map above) cite.

    If you look at the circle sizes and accompanying legend on the map you'll also see that we are talking about a relatively small number of bears... as compared to the many larger circles found amongst groups that are in decline.
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  14. Thank you Albatross :-)

    CBD: And vast areas about which we have inadequate data coupled with three contiguous areas, one growing and two stable. The populations here are not modest.

    It's important to consider why one area is actually growing not for the purposes of point scoring but to work out if we're doing something right somewhere. More intriguing, why don't we have enough data about Fern Basin given the wealth of data for the rest of Canada?
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  15. Presumably, as it's the latest in political fashions, Muller's remarks were not intended to be taken as "factually accurate".

    Together with the ( -snip- ) Watts as UHI "hero" compliment, that's two strikes down so far.
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Inflammatory term snipped.
  16. chriscanaris: See the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group site. As I mentioned before, these are the people who produced the data which the map above is based on. The site also has information about the conditions impacting the various sub-populations. Similar conditions (allowing for continued population growth) exist for the larger neighboring 'Gulf of Boothia' population, but there increased hunting by humans has caused numbers to stabilize.

    For instance, the lone 'growing' sub-set at M'Clintlock channel consists of a tiny population of approximately 284 bears, and is believed to be growing simply because the population is still recovering from hunting. Until recently that was true of most of the sub-populations... but declining habitat has now reversed the trend in many areas as seen above. M'Clintlock channel has continued to experience significant sea ice coverage and thus hasn't seen population declines yet.

    I believe the Foxe Basin population status is unknown just because it is a remote region (most of the bears are found on various islands un-inhabited by humans) which has been difficult to study. There are new aerial surveys being conducted to fill out the picture on this group.
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  17. 'Polar bears of western Hudson Bay and climate change:
    Are warming spring air temperatures the ‘‘ultimate’’
    survival control factor?'
    By M.G. Dyck, W. Soon, R.K. Baydack, D.R. Legates, S. Baliunas, T.F. Ball, L.O. Hancock

    Bearing in mind the presence of so many of the usual suspects among the authors, who show little or no expertise in the field, it may not be surprising that there are strong reasons to believe that this paper wasn't peer reviewed and was part funded by Koch industries. BTW, it has also been criticised for not being as objective as it should be.
    Abstract of Reply to response to Dyck et al. (2007) on polar bears and climate change in western Hudson Bay by Stirling et al. (2008)
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  18. Am I incorrect, or is your quote from the film inaccurate?  You say in the film Gore says:

    "That’s not good for creatures like polar bears, who depend on the ice. They’re now, actually, looking for other ecological niches. It is sad what’s going on in the Arctic ecosystem."

    In actuality, at approx 45:30, he states:

    "That’s not good for creatures like polar bears who depend on the ice.  A new scientific study shows that for the first time they’re finding polar bears that have actually drowned, swimming long distances up to 60 miles to find the ice. They didn't find that before. What does it mean to us to look at vast expanse of open water at the top of our world that used to be covered by ice? We ought to care a lot because it has planetary effects."

    While the overall truth of your point about Gore and Cicerone may hold, this inaccurate quotation should be corrected.   Where did you find that particular line?


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